To give you an idea of how quickly Marc Heu’s life has changed over the past couple years: He graduated with a très bien degree from Ecole Lenôtre Paris just last June and spent most of 2018 bouncing between high-octane jobs and apprenticeships, at France’s oldest pastry shop (Stohrer); at a world renowned, Michelin-starred restaurant (Pré Catalan); and at Dominique Ansel’s signature bakery in Soho. You know, the one with the cronuts. All with the ultimate goal of ending up right back in the Twin Cities, where the Saint Remy-born, French Guiana-raised chef had met his wife Gaosong seven years ago, and where he decided he didn’t want to be a doctor after all.
“I was going to medical school at the time to please my parents,” Heu explains when we meet at the acclaimed pâtisserie he opened in St. Paul over the summer. “As a kid, I wanted to show [French] society that I could get into that [medical] field and do it, but at some point, I realized I didn’t want to live a life that wasn’t going to make me happy.”
Heu told his parents, Hmong refugees from Laos, that he wanted to be a pastry chef when he was 13. They were convinced that he couldn’t make a living as what was then considered a low-paid laborer. (Top Chef, The Great British Baking Show, and the Food Network hadn’t romanticized the restaurant world and reinforced culinary dreams just yet.)
Now that he’s realizing a lifelong goal to run his own bakery, Heu is keeping things consistent, with limited hours (7 a.m. till noon during the week, and 7 a.m. till 2 p.m. on weekends) and a skeleton crew of whomever can keep up with his tireless work ethic.
“It’s funny,” Heu says. “I was still in Paris a year ago and telling my mentor (Stohrer chef Jeffrey Cagnes) that I wanted to come back to the States and open my own [bakery]. He was like, ‘Dude, you’re crazy. You can’t imagine the amount of work [that entails].’ Finding the right people is the hardest part. It’s quite a challenge, but I love it.”
Marc Hieu Patisserie always serves croissants, with desserts changing weekly, “depending on my mood,” Heu says. He tries to have four different pastries available each day. Weekends see seasonal specials—plus those croissant donuts.
In the following interview, Heu discusses everything from his rather basic sponge-cake roots to the way American Pie helped shape his view of the States.
What’s your average workday like?
Right now, I start at 10 p.m. usually. I start by rolling dough, which takes about two hours. At midnight, I laminate everything and am usually done with croissants, chocolate-pistachio escargot, and kouign amann by 2. Then I proof them and start prepping for the day, so that we can start assembling everything as soon as my staff comes in. It takes a long time. Before we know it, it’s already 5:30. Then we have to turn on the ovens for the croissants.
You’re not taking a nap at 2 a.m.?
Oh, no! I don’t take a nap. I like to joke, ‘If I get three hours of sleep a day, it’s a luxury.’
Is that why you close earlier than most bakeries?
Yes, that’s true, because I do everything from scratch. Some places buy frozen or pre-made [pastries]. I chose to do pastries because it’s a passion of mine. I wanted to do it a certain way—the real way, the only way, for me. It’s a process.
What’s the croissant process?
Everything takes two or three days to make, so I’m here all day. With the croissant, you mix the dough and put it in the fridge, then you have to wait 24 hours. And then the next day, you have to put the butter in there. Some people like to fold it two times, and some people like to fold it three times. And between each fold, you have to let it rest for another hour or so. All of this adds up. A tart looks more sophisticated, but it’s actually easier to make than a croissant, because you just make the tart shell, fill it with cream, put a glaze on it, and finish it.
What did you make at home as a kid?
We would mix whatever was in the fridge (milk, eggs) with whatever we had in the dry storage (flour and sugar). There wasn’t any order to it, like mixing the egg or the sugar first, and then the flour and milk. That’s how I do it now, but at the time, we’d just put everything in a bowl and whisk it. We had one [cookbook], but I didn’t know how to read at the time, so I just followed my older sisters. I loved whipping everything with our hand mixer. I would stand on a bench or chair because I was too short and help—touching the flour and making a mess. It was terrible, but at the time, we enjoyed it.
Did you make bread?
No, just sponge cake — a very dry sponge cake.
See, I thought you were making things like croissants at home.
Oh, no. We were in the middle of the jungle. My parents moved to French Guiana when I was 3, and at the time … it was kind of like Europe with the Syrian people: Some countries don’t want them to come there. It was pretty much the same with Hmong people; the French didn’t want the Hmong people to live in the city, so they had to build their own houses, farms, and villages in the jungle.
Your parents were refugees then?
My parents were part of the third or fourth wave of Hmong people to move to French Guiana. But they were already French citizens by then. They were refugees from Laos. After the Vietnam War, Hmong people had the choice of either coming to the U.S. or France. And my dad wanted to go to France.
Do you know why your dad wanted to move to France instead of the U.S.?
He took French in middle school and knew how to speak a little bit of it. He had an opportunity to visit the U.S. soon after that—he came to Minnesota in 1991—but he didn’t like it because he was too cold.
Around that time, he heard about a Hmong community living in French Guiana. My parents moved there because they didn’t need to learn a new language and the climate is similar to what they knew in Laos. It’s pretty much the same temperature all year long, and they can farm—the only thing they know how to do.
So, you can’t convince them to move here?
No, they can’t do the cold. Maybe if I was in Miami. They live in the middle of the jungle. People don’t believe me, but I have the pictures to prove it. There’s anacondas; there’s monster fish. My parents like being their own boss, and running their own farm. They’re not renting it; they own their land, and they do what they want.
Helping on the farm as a kid must have prepared you for the long hours of running a bakery.
Yes, that’s probably why I don’t feel like it’s hard work. Because we’d have to help them after school and on holidays. It was farming all the time.
I remember a very embarrassing moment. Every September, when we went back to school, we had to tell people about our vacation. Some people were like, ‘Oh yeah, we went to Paris. We went on the Champs-Élysées.’ Or they went on a mountain to ski, or to Africa or Australia—all of these fancy things. Me, I was always stuck in the jungle, helping my parents. I thought I had a sad, poor life at the time, but it actually taught me a lot. It made me stronger; that may be why I’m able to do what I do now.
Your parents were worried about you pursuing this type of work.
That was how French society saw pastries at the time—as labor work. And anything that’s considered labor work is looked down upon. They want you to become a doctor; they want you to become a lawyer; they want you to be in an office, wearing a suit with a laptop in front of you. That’s the stupid image they have of success.
People here romanticize French culture so much; they look at patisseries as this very revered line of work.
It’s funny, because you know France for…what? For their food. It’s not for their soccer team or anything else. But it’s only now that they started to get some respect. Chefs are fashionable now. Like my chef at Stohrer (Jeffrey Cagnes) is sponsored by Samsung, and his friend is sponsored by Dior. It’s very different. This new wave of chefs made the profession very sexy, very attractive.
Tell me how you went from making sponge cake to appreciating finer kinds of pastries. Was that something you discovered while you were going to school?
Yeah, I didn’t have a lot of money when I was a student, but I would save whatever I could and secretly go to a very nice pastry shop every month or so.
I was always ashamed to admit I knew how to appreciate food in France because I felt like everybody around me was all about studying hard to have a master’s degree, to have a higher education. Because culinary school is an associate degree—two years only—they don’t see that as hard.
I wouldn’t have had the courage to do this in France. My wife was the one who pushed me and said, ‘You have to do what you love.’ I was going to go back to med school, but the day before, I was laying in bed, saying, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ She said, ‘Don’t do it then. Don’t go tomorrow. It’s not too late.’
How did you end up in Minnesota in the first place?
I have some family here, so I came in 2012 to visit, and my cousin introduced me to the girl that became my wife. He was like, ‘Want me to introduce you to this girl? She goes to the U of M and can take you to all these crazy American parties you only see on TV.’ I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ Because I was just staying at home, babysitting kids. Why not?
What kind of crazy parties did you go to?
Nothing crazy, but in France, we loved watching movies like American Pie. We didn’t have prom in high school. They sent us our degree, too. Even if you have a master’s in France, you get it in the mail. You don’t have a ceremony or wear a robe.
So, popular culture made it look like America was super fun. But then you got here and probably realized that’s not true, right?
No, it is, but the image that you have of the U.S. when you live outside is tall buildings like the ones in New York, Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles. So, when I came to St. Paul, I was like, ‘Where are all the tall buildings?’ There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just what you see on TV. You grow up thinking everything in the U.S. looks a certain way.
When we first spoke over email, you mentioned hating Paris-Brest pastries at first, but now they’re your favorite. What changed?
I realized what they’re supposed to taste like. In France, you can find that kind of [hazelnut] flavor in a can, but it’s really artificial. And a lot of bakeries just buy pre-made stuff. So, I didn’t have a good memory of it.
When I was 14 or 15, I had a well-made [Paris-Brest] and it changed my life. My sister told me the pastry chef at that shop did his training at Lenôtre, so when it was time to decide on a school, I picked that. I know a lot of people here apply to the U of M, or Wisconsin, or Iowa State, but when my wife asked me about my dream school, I was like, ‘I just want to go to this one.’
Is it a hard school to get into?
It was hard for me because they also do interviews, and I was in Minnesota at the time, so I had to write a very good cover letter. They took a bet on me, and I guess now they don’t regret [it] because I’m probably the first student to do something after graduating.
A lot of students quit afterward?
No; it’s just hard. I had a project. I really knew what I wanted to do; I never wanted to work for someone else. The only person in the world I could see working for is [chef] Jeffrey [Cagnes] at Stohrer.
Why is that?
He’s so kind, so open. And he trusts you so much. Like he called me today and said, ‘If you had stayed, I would have made you sous chef.’ For him to tell me that, with my two years of experience in the industry—that I could have been a sous chef at one of the most emblematic pastry shops in Paris—that’s a big deal. I don’t want to brag about it, but to have someone that’s so respected in France want to put me in that position… For him, it’s all about trust first. Even as an apprentice, he was like, ‘If I go into my office right now and make you a contract, will you stay?’ I was like, ‘Chef, you know I can’t. My wife, and my life, is in the U.S.’
If you hadn’t met your wife, do you think you would have ended up here anyway?
I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t be in the pastry field because she’s the one who pushed me.
What’s one item that was a hard sell for you early on?
People trust my work now and are willing to try everything, but if you asked that a couple weeks ago, I’d probably say the Paris-Brest. Maybe because of the color or shape.
Right. It’s less pretty than a passion fruit tart.
When I first made the Paris-Brest, it was in more of a wheel shape, the way it’s supposed to be. People kept asking what it is, so I changed the shape, because everybody knows what an eclair is.
What time should people get here by if they want the best selection?
It really depends, because sometimes you just have one person that comes and buys 50 croissants or 20, 30 pastries. It’s really unpredictable. And again, we can only make so much. It’s not like a restaurant with a huge menu that looks like the Bible.
How are your croissant donuts different than the ones that are made at Dominique’s bakery?
I feel like mine taste less yeasty, and the filling changes every two or three weeks. I swear it’s not his recipe. I had no access to it, and I never made it over there. I created my own. And I only make a small quantity every weekend because I don’t want people to come just for that. I don’t want to be making deep-fried things all the time.
What did you learn from working at Pré Catalan, the Michelin-starred restaurant?
The work environment was very military, very strict. That’s the thing; Stohrer is not like that. Jeffrey doesn’t mind people calling him by his name. And he’s not always behind you, making sure you’re doing everything right. If you do it wrong, he’ll just come over and teach you again. He leaves you a lot of space.
Restaurants are more tense.
Yes, and there’s a lot of competition. Jeffrey is good friends with the executive pastry chef [at Pré Catalan], so he shot [Christelle Brua] a text, saying, ‘I’m sending you someone you don’t need to train. He’s ready to work.’ So the first day I showed up, she had me do things she wouldn’t even let her sous chef do. Like the Paris-Brest. It’s a different shape—more like how they do it at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. It’s a signature of the house. A lot of pressure, but I tried not to show it.
Did you end up quitting Dominique’s?
Yes, New York is very expensive. I get it; you have to start from the bottom in the food industry, but I had a hard time because my wife is a full-time student and I was getting paid 12 bucks an hour. Every day, I had to commute two hours to Soho. And our rent for a studio in the Bronx was $1,650. Do the math: 12 bucks an hour, full time. It’s not enough. I had to come back to Minnesota to make a living with what I learned.
So, you did a business plan back in January. Then you were selling pastries out of your home by February?
Yes, we actually did our business plan in a week. I bought a big KitchenAid mixer. And I got a membership at Sam’s Club to go buy my ingredients at first. Once I had my business license, I did more research and found suppliers who can get stuff from Paris.
Are you importing certain types of butter?
Yes, and Valrhona chocolate. It’s the way it’s made. They do research on how to extract the most flavor from the cocoa beans and make sure the chocolate has a good consistency and doesn’t melt. And then the butter has a higher fat content.
Does that make it more expensive to produce everything?
Yeah, the butter makes it more expensive. That’s why my croissants are $3. I also import stuff you would not expect, like sugar for the glaze.
What are you most excited about making over the next couple weeks?
A signature cake I learned at my school. You know the Opera Cake?
It’s a very well-known cake that was invented by Monsieur Lenôtre. I want to make another signature cake he created that’s called La Feuille d’Automne, which translates to ‘the Autumn Leaf.’ It’s a chocolate cake that looks very pretty.
Anything else you’re making over the next few weeks?
I’m probably going to start making a savory item, like a quiche and a savory croissant or tart. One of my suppliers can get a good quality Gruyere cheese and ham from a specific region in France. I want to do it right. We’re also talking to a local roaster about our options for coffee. We’re going to have espresso, just like how we do it in France.
And all of this will have seating one day?
Yeah, kind of like Cafe Latte. We also have a rooftop. The landlord did a great job remodeling everything. You can see the State Capitol and downtown St. Paul from here. Baby steps. I’m not in a rush, because I want to do things right, just like with the pastries.
Marc Heu Patisserie Paris
383 University Ave. W., St. Paul